Tuesday, July 17, 2018
The film is set in Manieka, a minor outpost in Kenya. Although Britain is at war the British officials there are pretty casual. Things are usually quiet and peaceful and no-one worries very much about security. That all changes when Major Coombes (George Sanders) arrives to take over command. Coombes is shocked by the laxness of discipline. An Italian prisoner-of-war is allowed to wander about all over the place. Sentries are rarely posted. Coombes is determined to smarten things up. In Nairobi the war is taken much more seriously and Coombes has been sent to investigate some very disturbing news that the Shenzi, who are described as outlaw natives, are being armed.
The Italian prisoner-of-war then outlines his crazy theory of how Africa is the key to world domination and Coombes thinks it’s a very persuasive theory.
What really unsettles things is the arrival of Zia (Gene Tierney). Zia is half-Arab and half-French, stunningly gorgeous, and is an immensely wealthy trader.
There is tension between the District Officer, Crawford (Bruce Cabot), who is the civil commander and Coombes as military commander. Crawford is, quite honestly, a pompous bore and an extremely irritating character. Coombes is pompous as well but George Sanders can make such a character reasonably entertaining. Bruce Cabot, sadly, does not have that ability.
Hollywood in those days was obsessed by the idea of beautiful mixed-race women. The idea of a woman trapped between two worlds is of course inherently rather interesting. Zia is even more interesting. She is half-Arab but also considers herself to be African.
Of course being a Hollywood movie made before America’s entry into the war this film is outrageous pro-British propaganda. From the first mention of illicit guns you just know that one of the characters is going to turn out to be an Evil Nazi. In this case his identity is painfully obvious right from the start.
The whole setup of this film lends itself to preaching. And Hollywood never could resist the temptation to get preachy. This movie takes the opportunity to preach to us on both political and social issues. And it does so mercilessly.
Apart from the times that the plot comers to a stop for a sermon it has to be said that director Henry Hathaway handles things pretty well.
Gene Tierney doesn’t really appear until the movie is well under way but we have already seen her briefly in an introductory scene when she arrives in an aircraft. At this stage we have absolutely no idea who she is or what part she is going to play in the events of the movie and this is quite an effective technique - it establishes her rather nicely as a mysterious figure. Unfortunately once she reappears in the film the mystery is not really maintained. She turns out to be disappointingly straightforward.
Sundown has fallen into the public domain. The copy I watched came from a St Clair Vision bargain bin boxed set. Surprisingly the transfer was reasonably good.
Sundown had the makings of a decent adventure romance movie but it’s swamped by some of the most embarrassingly ham-fisted cinematic propaganda you’ll ever encounter, and by the endless sermonising. It’s a great pity because Sundown is visually exceptionally interesting and Hathaway’s direction of the action scenes is lively. And Gene Tierney looks great.
A movie that had promise but while it has its moments it’s difficult to recommend this one unless you’re a Gene Tierney completist.
Monday, July 9, 2018
The film opens with a happy event. The Queen of France has given birth to a son, the future Louis XIV. King Louis XIII is overjoyed to have an heir. There is one slight problem. The Queen has actually given birth to two sons, and that’s too much of a happy event. It seems obvious that twins are likely to cause problems, possibly even civil war if they were to be pitted against each other by rival factions. The sensible thing is to quietly get rid of the second child. Obviously there can be no question of harming the child - he must simply be sent away so that he can do no mischief. For this plan to work the child will have to be given to someone who can be trusted absolutely not only to care for the boy but to keep the secret. And who could be more trustworthy than the king’s old comrade-in-arms D’Artagnan? D’Artagnan is sent back to his home in Gascony where he will raise the lad, who will be given the name Philippe.
It is now 1658. The 22-year-old Louis XIV is about to be betrothed to the Spanish Infanta, Maria Theresa. Louis has a more urgent problem on his mind. He has become aware of a plot to assassinate him when he visits the cathedral to light a candle on his late father’s name-day. It’s a tradition and he cannot escape performing this duty but it may cost him his life. At this moment one of Fouquet’s little plots will have unexpected results. He has caused D’Artagnan and the Musketeers and Philippe to be arrested as traitors. The King (who knows nothing of the existence of his twin) is struck by the uncanny resemblance between himself and Philippe and he has a clever idea. Philippe can impersonate him at the cathedral, and get himself assassinated in the king’s place. In fact the assassination is avoided but the ability of Philippe to impersonate the king, and the potential usefulness of this fact, has been noted by the king and by others.
Everyone in this movie is plotting. Some are plotting to ensure their own survival, some are doing so for the good of the country, and some in order to enhance their own power. King Louis plots for the sheer pleasure of indulging in intrigues and playing games with other people’s lives.
One result of all these intrigues is that the king has Philippe imprisoned, with an iron mask locked onto his face. The king has the only key. Now D’Artagnan and his friends, including Louis’s one trustworthy courtier, Colbert, must plot in order to free Philippe.
Warren William might seem an odd choice to play D’Artagnan but it must be remembered that this is not the dashing headstrong young D’Artagnan of the Three Musketeers. D’Artagnan, and his musketeer comrades, are now well into middle age. Their courage and loyalty are undimmed but the years are catching up to them. The casting of Warren William actually works quite well.
James Whale disliked making this movie and he disliked the actors and he departed from the production before the completion of filming. He seems to have done the movie for the money without taking any genuine interest in proceedings. The Man in the Iron Mask was made on a substantial budget for its era and it looks quite impressive.
The Man in the Iron Mask is worth seeing for some bravura acting and especially for Louis Hayward’s extraordinary performances. Overall it’s entertaining and it’s recommended.
Monday, July 2, 2018
As with most of Hammer’s crime films there is an imported American star. These were usually second-tier stars but mostly they gave quite decent performances. Lloyd Bridges is the star of this one and he plays American songwriter Philip Graham. He’s on holiday in Spain when he runs into Tony Roscoe, an old friend with whom he served in the R.A.F. during the war. Tony suddenly announces that Philip must drive him to the airport - he must fly back to London immediately. He persuades Philip to drive his car back to England for him. He also persuades Philip to bring with him an envelope which is apparently of absolutely crucial importance.
Things start to take a curious turn when Philip is driving back from the airport in Tony’s car. A group of toughs set upon him and beat him up.
Things get more curious when Philip arrives in London with Tony’s car. He has stumbled into a very awkward situation which includes industrial espionage, blackmail and murder.
There’s an actress, Mitzi Molnaur (Simone Silva), who might be able to fill in the missing pieces of the jigsaw for him but Mitzi is not the sort of girl you’d be happy about having to trust. There’s another girl as well, a Spanish girl, Marina (Maureen Swanson). Philip is rather taken by Marina but she could be involved in some of the shady activities that Tony Roscoe was mixed up in.
The screenplay is serviceable but relies a bit too much on lucky accidents such as the hero just happening to be in the right place to overhear a vital conversation that explains key plot points.
The main problem is that it’s all fairly predictable, and the characters are pretty much stock characters. The action moves back and forth between Spain and London but to be honest the attempt to add an exotic flavour with the Spanish setting doesn’t work especially well.
There’s not much here to justify the film noir label. This is a straightforward crime/spy thriller and it’s fairly typical of British movies in that genre at this period. In other words it’s a competently made little movie. It’s a B-movie and visually there’s nothing to get wildly excited about, although the fight in the loft is a quite clever visual set-piece and the ending isn’t too bad.
Third Party Risk is a rather average spy thriller B-feature with nothing to particularly recommend it but it’s a harmless time-killer.
Sunday, June 24, 2018
Reginald Parker (John Loder) has achieved stardom on the London stage playing the lead in the hit play The Brighton Strangler. He’s about to marry Dorothy Kent (Rose Hobart), the author of the play. Things are generally looking very good indeed for him. And then a bomb drops on him. Literally. This all takes place during the Blitz and when a bomb hits the theatre Reginald Parker gets a very nasty hit on the head. And it’s that blow on the head that causes all the trouble.
He wanders into Victoria Station and there’s a young woman, a WAAF named April Manby, buying a ticket to Brighton. His memory tells him that Brighton means something and that this chance meeting means something - this young woman is like the woman in the play. They get to know each other on the train journey (just like in the play) and he meets her family and is invited over for dinner.
It’s unfortunate that Chief Inspector Allison (Miles Mander) is not a fan of the theatre and so he doesn’t notice anything odd about the fact that there’s a hit play about stranglings in Brighton and now he finds himself investigating murders by strangling in that very place.
Meanwhile Edward Grey has other scores he has to settle.
John Loder is excellent. He very wisely underplays slightly which makes the madness of his actions much more creepy. Even when he’s totally off his rocker he seems quite calm and sane. June Duprez as April is a more than adequate leading lady. Miles Mander was one of those reliable English character actors who could make minor characters such as Chief Inspector Allison so delightful.
Max Nosseck was a competent B-movie director and he gets the job done although perhaps a slightly less pedestrian approach might have paid dividends. The air raid scene is admittedly pretty well done.
A couple of years later the same basic idea was used, with some considerable success, in a Ronald Colman vehicle called A Double Life.
The Brighton Strangler was released on DVD in Spain but doesn’t seem to be available elsewhere. I caught this one on TV.
The less seriously you take The Brighton Strangler the more you’ll enjoy it. Recommended.
Sunday, June 17, 2018
As the film opens a man known as Biscuit (played by Richard Burton) is desperately trying to contact a woman he knows only as Sea Wife. The main story is then told in flashback.
In 1942 a cargo ship packed with a miscellaneous assortment of passengers, all intent on escaping the approaching Japanese Army, leaves Singapore. Shortly afterwards the ship is torpedoed by a Japanese submarine. Four passengers find themselves in a rubber dinghy. There’s Biscuit, there’s a rather aggressive slightly Colonel Blimp-ish middle-aged Englishman who becomes known as Bulldog, there’s the ship’s purser who is christened Number Four and then there’s Sea Wife (Joan Collins). The purser gives her this name, which refers to a kind of mermaid. Sea Wife is in fact a nun, a fact known to the purser, but for some reason she decides not to inform the other two of this fact.
Of course there are tensions between these four people. And of course Biscuit, having no idea she is a nun, falls in love with Sea Wife. As for Sea Wife, she clearly has some feelings for Biscuit but it’s also clear that she takes being a nun rather seriously.
The plot does become rather contrived, which tends to happen with stories involving castaways and desert islands. And movies involving castaways and desert islands also have a tendency to use this setup for the purposes of social commentary. Sea Wife is no exception. Number Four is a black man, which gives the movie the opportunity to lecture us on the evils of racial prejudice. The only problem with this is that the Japanese characters are the most incredibly stereotypical evil sub-human monsters you’ll ever encounter in a movie, so the rather confused message seems to be that racial prejudice is very very wrong sometimes but it’s OK at other times.
The four main cast members are all quite competent. Richard Burton was never quite a conventional romantic leading man but he’s effective enough. He overacts of course, but he always did and he is playing a man who has developed a pretty serious obsession so it’s forgivable.
Joan Collins has by far the most interesting role since she’s not only playing a part for the benefit of the other passengers, she’s also playing a part for her own purposes. Whatever other reasons she may have had for not revealing that she is a nun it does give her the chance to pretend to be a civilian for a while. It’s not that she’s a scheming type of woman, on the whole she’s quite sympathetic but she does cause Biscuit a great deal of confusion and grief. I think she caries off the role quite well - she is supposed to be playing a woman who is not quite sure of her own motivations and her own feelings and she captures Sea Wife’s uncertainties and fears quite well. She also doesn’t overact anywhere near as much as the other three principals!
Naturally there’s a great deal of overheated romantic melodrama resulting from Sea Wife’s lack of candour about her occupation, with poor Biscuit doing everything he can think of to convince her to accept his love and Sea Wife being torn apart by her own confused feelings. Burton and Collins handle all this reasonably well and they do have the right kind of slightly offbeat chemistry to carry it off.
Sea Wife is, surprisingly, readily available on DVD in at least Regions 1, 2 and 4. I saw a rental copy of the Region 4 disc. There are no extras but the anamorphic transfer is very good.
Sea Wife really should not work at all. There is just so much about the plot that is so hopelessly contrived and it includes several egregious examples of one of my great pet hates - characters acting out of character just so the writer can make a political point. There’s also the difficulty that there seems to be no convincing reason for Sea Wife’s deception. The ending does work and it feels right. There are all sorts of things wrong with this movie but Richard Burton and Joan Collins are worth watching. And it’s just an odd sort of movie with a certain weird charm. Recommended, but with rather a lot of reservations.
Saturday, June 9, 2018
The movie is based on the first three Hornblower novels to be published, and especially the very first Hornblower book, The Happy Return. C.S. Forester had some involvement with the script.
It is 1807 and the British frigate Lydia has been at sea for seven months. Not just at sea, but out of sight of land. This is in accordance with the Admiralty’s orders and Captain Horatio Hornblower has chosen to interpret his orders very literally indeed. The crew of the Lydia are close to breaking point. Food is running low, fresh water is running even lower, scurvy is stalking the ship and there has been not a trace of wind for a disturbingly long time. Having gone seven months without sighting land there is of course considerable doubt as to whether they are actually anywhere near the spot at which they have been ordered to make landfall. Captain Hornblower has his doubts as well but there is no way he is going to let those doubts show.
There’s also the little matter of the Natividad, a Spanish ship of the line which has just arrived in the vicinity. The Lydia is hopelessly outgunned by the Natividad but somehow or other Hornblower is going to have to destroy or capture her. In fact Hornblower is going to find that the Natividad is a problem that comes back to haunt him.
The Hornblower of the novels is by no means a conventional hero. He is filled with self-doubts and self-recriminations and he is a man to whom command does not come easily. He has trained himself to play the part convincingly but he feels that he is a fake. He’s extraordinarily complex by the standards of adventure heroes. A slightly flawed hero who struggles, mostly successfully, to overcome his flaws. He’s also a very introverted and somewhat self-obsessed hero. He’s an admirable character, but he’s admirable in spite of himself. His slightly tense relationships with his junior officers and with the men under his command add yet another layer of complexity.
All of this was a challenge for Gregory Peck. Hornblower was a moody introvert and the script had removed much of the interest from the character. Peck really had to work hard to make the most of what he was left with, which was basically a few idiosyncrasies. Fortunately he was up to the challenge and gives a performance that is sympathetic, occasionally slyly amusing and with at least a few suggestions of hidden depth. His Hornblower is a low-key swashbuckling hero.
I’m not sure about Virginia Mayo as Lady Barbara. She’s an actress I’ve never warmed to and there’s no real chemistry between the two leads.
Look out for Christopher Lee and Stanley Baker in minor roles.
Technically this is a very impressive movie indeed. The sea battle sequences are absolutely superb and they’re suitably thrilling. Walsh’s mastery of action film-making is very much in evidence.
Although it has a few problems Captain Horatio Hornblower R.N. is still fine entertainment. Gregory Peck is surprisingly effective (and in my view he’s a better and more interesting Hornblower than Ioan Gruffudd in the late 90s TV movies) and the sea battles are magnificent. Highly recommended.
Saturday, June 2, 2018
Taylor plays Detective Sergeant Christopher Kelvaney. He’s been accepting pay-offs from mobster Dan Beaumonte (George Raft) in return for doing routine favours. Now Beaumonte wants a very big favour from him. Kelvaney and his rookie cop kid brother Eddie (Steve Forrest) have arrested a rather nasty punk named Fallon for murder. It’s Eddie’s evidence that is going to convict the punk but Beaumonte wants Fallon to be allowed to walk. Fallon is very small fry but apparently he could make life uncomfortable for Beaumonte and his associates, and Beaumonte doesn’t like things that make him uncomfortable. Beaumonte isn’t an unreasonable man. Normally he’d just have an inconvenient witness like Eddie killed, but since Chris Kelvaney has been useful in the past he’s prepared to offer a special deal. He’ll buy Eddie off instead of having him rubbed out.
This movie doesn’t quite follow a standard film noir template. There are women with colourful pasts but they don’t quite fit the femme fatale mould. Chris Kelvaney is not quite a classic noir protagonist - he’s already thoroughly crooked when the story opens. On the other hand while he might be corrupt he hasn’t reached rock bottom. He’s going to find out jus how much further he has to fall. He has no illusions about himself but he sees himself as a realist. It’s a corrupt world. If you try to be honest you’re a sucker. Smart guys accept reality. No-one really gets hurt. Well, nobody that matters. But now things are getting out of control. The one decent thing about Chris is that he cares about Eddie but maybe caring won’t be enough to keep his brother alive.
The most impressive thing about Taylor’s performance is its unsentimentality. Chris Kelvaney is not a nice guy and Taylor doesn’t try to make him noble or heroic.
By this stage of his career George Raft had grown tired of playing mobsters and heavies but fortunately he was persuaded to accept this role. Maybe there were actors who could play these kinds of roles just as well as George Raft, but there was nobody who could play them better. Dan Beaumonte is very smooth and very self-assured but within his first thirty seconds of screen time Raft has convinced us that this is the kind of guy you don’t ever want to get on the wrong side of. Raft doesn’t need to raise his voice in order to convey purposeful menace. It’s Raft at his best, giving a chilling performance.
Visually this movie isn’t quite regulation noir. It’s an MGM movie and it looks a bit glossier than a RKO or a Warner Brothers noir. That’s not really a weakness. This movie is not about street hoodlums. It’s about big time gangsters and their world is pretty glamorous, on the surface at least.
Of course this being an MGM movie you might be wondering if Rogue Cop is going to be a bit inclined to pull its punches. It’s hard to answer that question without risking spoilers. Personally I think this film is pretty satisfyingly hard-edged and I think there’s enough here to qualify it as genuine film noir. Director Roy Rowland keeps things taut and he throws in a pretty decent action finale.
Rogue Cop doesn’t seem to have made it to DVD which is a great pity. I caught this movie on TCM and the print they screened was pretty good.
Great performances by Robert Taylor, George Raft and Anne Francis and a tough unsentimental mood add up to a very underrated movie. Highly recommended.